Ever Wondered What It’s Like Driving an Armored Car?

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By the author of  Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City and The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.

Last year I wrote an article about the booming armored car market here in Brazil. Things have only grown since then, and in fact, I’m seeing signs of it also picking up in other countries, including first-world nations.

Not long after that, I got involved in designing and refurbishing with two shops in my state that specialized in armored vehicles. During the work, I became friends with the owner, who runs many other businesses.

While not a self-proclaimed prepper, he has a lot of the same mindset as we do. In all likelihood, this is from having worked almost three decades in the field of personal safety. Besides, he’s got ex-police officers and ex-militaries working for him and consults with public security agents of all kinds frequently.

He offered to let me test a car from his fleet for a period of time.

He also managed to fill me a spot in a two-week defensive driving course, if I would accept it. Of course, I did.

I figured this would be a great opportunity to add a survival skill to my “resume.” I’ll be talking about what I learned at the course (and also about personal safety while driving) in a future article.

The world is not getting any safer. Much of what is common practice around here can be useful for all kinds of preppers no matter what type of car they drive or where they live. So stay tuned.

Here are my impressions after a few months of driving around in a rolling fortress.

The car

My friend got me a gasoline-powered AWD mid-sized SUV equipped with Level III-A ballistic protection. It’s a 2015 model but with low mileage and looks like new. Many second-hand luxury cars and SUVs have low mileage and are rather well conserved.

The armoring is not the latest tech, but it’s relatively modern with 17mm laminated glass and Kevlar-and-hardened steel protection throughout, making it 20% lighter than average. That’s pretty good even for modern standards.

The SUV base-weight is 1,650kg (3,630lbs). The armoring adds another estimated 170kg (375lbs). The tires are regular, XL rated (extra-load). It’s not uncommon that armored cars circulate on regular tires, though shops and experts recommend steel-belted (bulletproof) or at least run-flat tires (RFT – nonbulletproof) for added insurance.

The experts I spoke with commented that it’s relatively rare to see an armored car stopped by shot tires. But they also added that, yes, it can happen. And someone not willing to take any chances or who will be driving around in really bad areas should opt for belted tires.

Armored car

Armored cars must be powerful.

The extra weight requires extra power to pull the vehicle, the reinforced glass and steel, and the payload. I mentioned that in my article, and now my direct experience confirms it. Power and speed are good if you need to escape as well.

A car between 1.4 and 1.7 tons will do fine with a 200-horsepower engine, especially a V6 or one of the modern turbocharged four-cylinder. Bigger SUVs and trucks may require 280 horsepower or more power.

The 240bhp of the 2.0 turbocharged engine from my test car was more than enough to pull the near-2 ton monster a 0-60 in the low-7s – quite impressive, in my opinion.

Being 4WD also helps, not only with acceleration but also with the stability that gets partially whacked thanks to the elevated center of gravity. Extra weight at the higher part of the car’s body causes this. The steel is heavy, but the glass is obscenely heavy. AWD increases grip and safety during curves and in the wet, too.

Turbo-diesel engines are highly favored too, because they have high torque and longer autonomy. Modern ones are low-vibration, silent, and very elastic. I tested a few models equipped with turbo-diesel engines shortly, and the ones in the 180bph range have impressive torque and pull even 2.5T SUVs with relative ease. Most are also AWD.

Armored cars aren’t safe for road traveling.

I hadn’t thought of this before spending time with the boss, but it’s logical. The armoring is engineered and built to make the car (almost) impenetrable by bullets or people. So, obviously, in case of an accident, it can be pretty hard to open it and rescue the occupants or to leave the car if necessary.

Armored car
Yeah, good luck.

Another aspect worth noting: some airbags (such as the ones in the A and B columns) must be removed to give space for the hardened steel plates that seal the cabin. The whole airbag system might be affected as a result. The firewall (a partition between the cabin and the engine) must also be reinforced.

These mods change the driving significantly, and also the deformation dynamics. In case of impact, the ballistic protection (allegedly) offers increased shock protection to the occupants. But it can also work unpredictably because it alters the original engineering of the vehicle.

Not many people know about this. But the wealthier armored car clients around here usually have an armored car for in-town driving (where criminality is more critical) and a second “original” car or SUV for weekend trips and traveling.

Armored cars are gas guzzlers.

A powerful and “torque-y” engine also helps keep fuel consumption rather reasonable. Something is gained from having a powerful engine that doesn’t require stepping down all the time to make it accelerate and keep moving with agility.

But there’s no escaping it: even if you drive with a light foot, the extra weight will increase fuel consumption. Those buying an armored car must be ready to foot a higher gas and maintenance bill, period.

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Armored cars require more frequent maintenance.

The extra weight adds stress to the entire car. The suspension and braking systems are significantly overloaded and wear much faster – between 20 to 30% on average than a normal car, according to the engineers I spoke with. But depending on how (and where) it’s driven, this can reach 50% more maintenance.

Tires also wear faster, as expected. Steel-belted tires and wheels are a pain to deal with, and maintenance is twice as expensive for that reason alone. Run-flat tires have come a long way since their inception, but in my opinion (and in the experts’ opinion as well), the driving sucks, and the wheels and suspension system also suffer a lot more, especially on bad roads and streets.

Armored cars require special care.

One example: the doors can’t be shut closed with the windows open, or the glass might crack or break. By the way, only the front windows are functional: the rear ones are deactivated permanently for safety. The motor pulling the windows must be replaced with a more powerful one due to the extra weight, but it will still fail at some point if you use it too often.

Sunroofs may or may not be functional (i.e., open and close), depending on choice. They can also be transparent, like an original car. But this adds greatly to the cost of armoring, so most opt for a black armored plate with internal fabric trimming to simulate a tinted-glass sunroof when looking from outside.

Other particularities: the car is not supposed to drive with the doors open (why would someone do that anyway). But they should not be left open for too long, either: the hinges can get overloaded and misaligned with time. This is an issue, especially in lower-quality car models. In luxury models, not so much.

A bad or low-quality armoring service will leave the internal trimming of the car misaligned or falling. It will also get noisy as hell in no time, especially if tarmac conditions are bad and driving too aggressive. Cabin sealing might present issues at some points. A good service will look 100% original, be snug and tight, and last for decades with minimal maintenance. It will be very silent, too.

The car should not be left in the hot baking sun too long. This can break down the bond between the layers of glass and polycarbonate, leading to dreaded delamination, which shows in the form of internal “bubbles” in the glass. Thermal shocks can also damage the glass. It should be left to cool down before a wash, for instance, or before heating after snow.

This is less of an issue in more modern cars, but older ones circulating here have delaminated glass all over. While the ballistic protection isn’t compromised, it can interfere with the light, and the driver’s view can get distorted. It’s cosmetically ugly too and greatly reduces the value of used armored cars.

Armored cars require special driving.

More in the sense of ensuring the protection is effective. You do see a lot of knuckleheads driving around in armored cars with the windows rolled down. I mean, what the heck? Really?

Just like carrying a gun with your head in the clouds can get you into serious trouble with attackers, driving an armored car also requires situational awareness and constant attention. You might be kept safe from others, but not from yourself if you act stupid.

Keeping the doors locked at all times is basic procedure. It’s common sense. I’ve been shown countless cases of drivers caught with their doors unlocked while waiting at the stoplight. The attacker just flipped the latch and entered the car. Boom.

You must be more careful with potholes, and those abound in all but the best autobahns of Germany, Switzerland, and maybe a couple of other countries in the world. Where, incidentally, no one needs armored cars.

You do get used to the extra weight and different dynamics

Early on, you feel like “dang!”. It’s like driving a tank on wheels. But you do get used to it, and the feeling goes away.

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Warranty and other issues

The warranty applies mostly to the glass parts, which are the most critical. The other parts are hidden and covered and usually only get affected by crashes or (knock on wood) firearms.

Today, most armoring shops will offer a minimum of three years warranty on the armoring. The 17mm ones from top brands are warranted for five years, and the premium 19mm made with SentryGlas (trademarked) instead of laminated polycarbonate has a ten-year warranty.

Insurance covers the armoring full or partially. Older vehicles can get insurance for the body and mechanics, but not the armoring. If something happens, the company will foot the repair of body parts and mechanic bills, and the owner will have to pay for the repair in the armoring.

This can be a problem because, in the event of an accident, some owners end up repairing the car and not reconstituting the ballistic protection. Then they sell the car, and the new buyer may not know about it and drive unprotected, unknowingly.

Modern glass parts can be repaired and reinstalled if delamination occurs and keep their warranty and protection. Older ones must be replaced, though repair for a quick sale isn’t uncommon. Some companies offer revision, but it’s advisable that anyone buying a used armored car inspect this and demand integrity declarations and technical reports.

Depending on the type of mechanical service, it might be necessary to disassemble and reassemble the armoring. It’s also advisable to proceed with overall inspections of the electronic parts of the car during routine maintenance to make sure everything is functional.

Yes, you do feel a lot safer inside armored cars.

It’s not trending worldwide for no reason. Around here, most thieves already know an armored from a normal car, and attacks on armored cars are actually pretty rare. They do happen, and it sucks, but it’s very, very rare. In addition, it’s not like my city is Baghdad or something, so there’s that.

But, you do get a head start over everyone else on the street. Attackers will pass you and look for the next easy victim in a non-armored car nearby. I couldn’t find updated statistics, but since I performed this test, I started paying a lot of attention. I can say with some confidence that 90% or more of the luxury cars and SUVs circulating here have ballistic protection.

The bad guys know it, so while it’d be the preferred category for them, it’s also the most difficult one to get a strike on. But urban crime is opportunistic for the most part, so compounding risk factors count a lot: driving with rolled down windows, using a smartphone, having a purse in the side seat, driving with one’s head in the clouds – it’s all stuff that turns anyone into a potential victim.

What are your thoughts on armored cars? Would you enjoy an opportunity to try one out? Let us know in the comments below.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City , is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. He’s also the author of The Ultimate Survival Gear Handbook.

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor


Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

Leave a Reply

  • I understand that AWD and 4WD are different. Scotty Kilmer says AWD is more expensive, complicated and more prone to expensive repairs and maintenance than 4WD.

  • I have been in HMMWVs, Up-armored HMMWVs, MRAPs, AAVs, a German APC and a armored Mercedes Benz.
    I was just a passenger, did not know the specs of the Benz, but I can say opening the doors was like a free weight session in the gym. Acceleration and braking took a lot longer (seemed to me the vehicle was underpowered), and the handling felt very sluggish.
    Did not inspire confidence in me. We were not going far fortunately.
    Granted the tactics in a country like where Fabian lives would be greatly different, as the attackers goals more likely be to kidnap or steal.
    Afghanistan insurgents? Not so much.

  • If you go this route, be cognizant of armor ratings. Level IIIa, as the referenced vehicle is equipped, is rated to stop multiple hits from all handgun calibers. It is not rated for rifle calibers and you should use it accordingly. Even though these armored vehicles are great, they will prove useless if you skimp on other fundamentals like situational awareness, route planning, etc.
    I am not an expert and I have no combat or security experience.

    • That’s right Jon, Level IIIA is for urban violence only. It’s the kind found here and in most places not in war. It’s the top level that will be allowed for civilian use, unless there’s some special requirement (diplomats, heads of state, judges and politicians under threat, etc.).

      It can stop rifles (I’ve seen multiple videos of tests), but it’s not rated for higher calibers so it may or may not resist multiple shots thus it’s not intended nor warranted for military uses.

      And you’re absolutely right about the importance of situational awareness, defensive driving and other procedures. No protection and no weapon can save us from ourselves.

      Stay safe.

  • Did your interview or training cover fire resistance or suppression for these vehicles? That seems like the first vulnerability that I would be concerned about. The Germans suffered a devastating defeat from the Russians late in WW2 because they rushed their tanks to battle without secondary armament. The Russians just ran up and burned most of them. It’s hard to operate a vehicle when you only have smoke to breathe and you’re being cooked.

  • Not really, it’s just a bunch of laminated glass, hardened steel and aramid fabric all over. It’s intended for urban crime only, to gain time and allow a strategic escape in case of robbery or hijacking attempts.

    The air conditioning system and pretty much everything else is OEM. No special systems, that’s for above L-IIIA (like The Beast). I drove a couple of SUVs with hi-power speakers and sirens to call for help, but been told it’s hardly ever needed really.

    If the car gets stuck or blocked the perpetrators can try tools, or smoke and fire to make the occupants leave, but honestly this never happens.

    Super-high profile, super-wealthy or super-famous and super-scared folks may have an escort with armed bodyguards. It’s more common for high-profile CEOs (like bankers) or diplomats and other authorities.

    But it’s mostly common urban crime, though can get violent because criminals have pistols and revolvers and people driving armored cars don’t want to take chances.

    That’s bad but not even close to conflicted places. If things get worse than that, maybe it’s too close to SHTF for comfort and best to leave the big city or even the country for a safer place heh?

  • Might have missed it but also the top heavy dynamics of all the extra weight topside makes rollovers a heightened (bad pun) concern. The “Rhino Runner” was an armored minibus that ran from BIAP to the Green Zone down Route Irish on the daily, and man, those things rolled at least 2-3 times when I was there. Not a OMG HUGE rollover, but a slow ‘took the corner a wee bit too fast’ tip and rollover.

    Also, as stated the wear and tear on the original designs tears up the equipment mucho fast. The 3Corp Commanding General’s HMMWV on VBC was a standard M998 that was ‘uparmored’ with huge slabs of X-Armor plate… the E-7 Motor Sgt was a buddy of mine and stated that the suspension needed to be replaced an average of every second trip as the additional weight would crush the springs and blow the standard shocks, also the crappy conditions of the roads in Baghdad contributed significantly as well…

    The M1114 was a full redesign of the truck wheels up to reinforce the whole thing and -properly- address the transmission wear and powertrain concerns.

  • We had 2 armored suburbans in Panama company. “Just Cause” put them to the test. The guard section had to send react during the invasion to Amadore. They worked. For one mission. I wasn’t there but saw the after effects. Glad the guard platoon had them.

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